Last week a capacity crowd watched a film ‘Enough is Enough’ about a steady state economy based on the book of the same name by Dan O’Neill and Bob Dietz, in the Rupert Beckett Theatre at Leeds Uni. I have read the book. I have also read Tim Jackson’s book on the same theme, ‘Prosperity without Growth’. Both are thorough and workmanlike accounts of how a steady state economy, unthinkable by the mainstream or the public at large, are perfectly feasible, and ideas on how we might get away from the indiscriminate growth which conventional economics takes for granted. But both are weak in two crucial respects. Without re-reading Tim Jackson’s book, I cannot remember whether he mentions the Citizens’ Basic Income, but it does not merit an index entry. It does in ‘Enough’, indeed it gets a full page, but only in the context of reducing inequality, not on its crucial relevance to the theme of the book, an economy in what will be criticized by opponents as a permanent recession. The CBI did not make it into the film. Why do I go on about the Citizens’ Income?, I do so only because in 40 years no one has come up with a better way to fulfil what I see as an absolutely fundamental sine qua non:
Everyone, everywhere must feel materially secure if they are even to consider measures necessary to guarantee ecological sustainability.
There is no point in discussing what might achieve that result if there is no need for it. Having taken this need for granted for 40 years myself, I have had a number of unpleasant shocks – last week at the Rupert Beckett was one – to see how many people I thought agreed with me, many with considerably more influence than me, do not appear to see the need for a general guarantee of security as a sine qua non – latin for ‘without which nothing’.
The film was followed by a Panel discussion, which included Dan O’Neill and Natalie Bennett. The film had discussed the need, in a steady state economy, for what work was available to be shared. Did Natalie see this as the natural entrée to point out that this is exactly why the Citizens’ Income is basic to the whole steady state concept, and why wasn’t it in the film? No, she said the Green Party had been instrumental in getting the Living Wage from the periphery into the mainstream. I would have expected this from a Labour Party politician who had not yet grasped that Green politics is likely to entail at least periods of what will look and feel like a recession, but 200 people had taken the trouble to come and hear about how to achieve and cope with zero growth.
Despite being attractive as a social justice aim, the Living wage is inappropriate in this context. I receive Financial Times alerts on line, and these can be quite illuminating, especially the comments streams. I have just watched a riveting ‘tennis rally’ between defenders and opponents of Obama’s raising the Federal Minimum Wage in the USA. Neither side was bothered about zero growth of course. The ‘antis’ pointed to studies showing a disproportionate effect on youth unemployment, but the ‘pros’ pointed to studies suggesting otherwise. All such studies were done in times of economic growth, which must have diluted any effect on unemployment. It seems to me logical that in the absence of growth, there must be an inverse relationship between wage levels and numbers of jobs available.
In this debate comparisons were brought to bear between states with no minimum wage, low MW, the Federal guideline, and those with a higher MW. But all combatants seemed oblivious of workfare. I do not know details, but Wisconsin’s workfare policy was trawled by Conservatives as a model for Britain whilts they were still in opposition. In Britain now, a few jobs have been expressly paid the Living Wage. Meanwhile, in a much larger part of the forest, Iain Duncan Smith is consolidating workfare as the norm, whereby a ‘scrounger’ is compelled to work at no cost to an employer on pain of losing his JobSeekers Allowance, effectively abolishing the minimum wage, let alone the Living one. I am tired of asking Natalie to use Dynamic Benefits (click ‘Publications’, published Sept 2009), the bedrock of his policy, as devastating evidence against it, and him.
But then somebody – not me! Asked the Citizens Basic Income question. Dan O’Neill did not even deign to address that question. Natalie said it was difficult to explain to the public, and asked people to study it, and help to publicise it. What she could have said in the time she took, was that the Citizens’ Basic Income is no more than the amalgamation of two sets of taxation: existing taxation, and the taxation inherent in the withdrawal of means tested benefits as explained in Dynamic Benefits, Natalie, and shown in the graph at the top of this page taken from ‘Dynamic’. She could also have made the point above about the absolute necessity of nobody batting an eyelid at the prospect of a recession, planned or accidental.
Surprisingly few seemed to notice an extremely angry old man remonstrating with Natalie and Dan afterwards, though the chap who had been rushing round with the mike did ask me why. He got a distressed version of this blog post. Natalie said she could not explain the Citizens’ Income on the six o’clock news, to housewives with a cooker on the go and kids round her ankles. OK, I couldn’t do Natalie’s job, and she does it extremely well in the main, but I have given her numerous examples of how she could get hints in, even on the main news, though she does have in depth opportunities. But above all this was an audience of 200 who had come to hear how to achieve a steady state economy. But my claim that they could and should have heard my message as above is only valid if I am right in my claim about making sure nobody needs to bat an eyelid in a recession. That was my first criticism of something lacking in the book and the film.
The second weakness is that there is nothing which would make your average entrepreneur or business person change course or back off. How they could is there in some detail, but not why they should any time soon. In the main they are not the kind of people to philosophise about the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ even if they have heard of it. What they do know is that in the immediate short term, in a fiercely competitive global market, anything other than aggressive marketing will put them at a disadvantage. They have no option but to ignore appeals about the ultimate harm from academics or others who do not have to survive in their environment.
I can see two reasons why they might ignore that aspect. Doorstepping in my first Green Party election ever, Leeds North east, February 1974, was for me a research project rather than an attempt to get elected, to the exasperation of a hard working team. But it did yield valuable information. We discovered that 10% took Limits to Growth seriously enough to consider voting for a party which made that its main theme, but at the other end of the spectrum were, and presumably still are, 10% who dismiss the notion of ecological limits on principle. Someone will always be clever enough to go on outwitting what I called eco-constraints. I think it is in the nature of things that this 10% will be heavily over-represented in business ventures and boadrooms.
But I believe that many apparent ‘deniers’ are nothing of the kind. They are more keenly aware of the ‘Tragedy’ than some Greens. Again, the ‘Tragedy is something I always thought was obvious, but apparently not. But if you do take the ‘Tragedy’ seriously, and you also assume, not unreasonably, that nothing can or will be done to stop it in time, then if you are among the few who can, the optimum strategy bearing in mind the pressures explained above, is to deny it, and just make sure that you are in as powerful position as possible when the crunch comes. The systematic ‘denial’ narrative which has been developed is for me consistent with this view.
Meanwhile the bad news piles up. Tony Abbott is ditching the Australian carbon tax. The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events doesn’t count, of course. Climate change is innocent until proved guilty, and powerful media interests have made sure the lay jury is still out, 97% certainty among those whose advice we should be heeding notwithstanding. The opposition to fracking may develop enough head of steam to actually stop it in densely populated parts of Britain, but as I said in my last blog post, whilst the ecological case against such an appalling technology is overwhelming, the economic case driving the juggernaut ever onwards is also overwhelming. If fracking does not take place in Britain, many homes will be spared the immediate horrors, but it will have a marginal impact on greenhouse gas levels, and Cameron is correct in his assessment that it will weaken Britain economically vis a vis the rest of the world.
I can give a relatively trivial example of business practice as long as competition and expansion are the norm. Our fridge went on the blink. Once upon a time they were filled with greenhouse gases, but if the fluid level dropped you could top it up. Not any more. Our fridge was ‘eco friendly’, but once the fluid level gets too low, you have to buy a new one. And how many more failed conferences do there have to be before the ‘Tragedy’ is recognized as being the basic dynamic?
I do not claim that the Citizens’ Basic Income is an immediate answer to this big one, except to say that even a start cannot be made until whole populations can feel secure during a recession. But until people with the clout of Natalie Bennett and Dan O’Neill, who can fill lecture theatres spread the word on how crucial this general sense of material security is, the bad guys will go on being bad guys until it is too late, despite ‘Enough is Enough’ and ‘Prosperity without Growth’, for all the glowing reviews.